Having enjoyed success with both Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SOMA, Frictional Games are now branching out into slightly uncharted territory.
We spoke to creative director Thomas Grip about the studio’s ambitions, and what they hope to achieve with their two new projects
Sometimes, the success of a video game gives you faith that not all commercially viable projects have to be shooters, MOBAs, or free-to-play mobile apps with nefarious micro-transactions up the wazoo.
Take, for example, the case of last year’s SOMA: a decidedly dark, warped and high-concept sci-fi saga that explores themes of consciousness and existentialism, and bends the mind so effectively you wonder if it might snap.
When we catch up earlier this week, Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip confirms that his labour of love has now sold in excess of 300,000 copies – making its entire budget back in less than a year.
“It’s comforting for me, because it shows we can make games that are different and ambitious,” he says.
And when it comes to being different and ambitious, Frictional are only just getting started.
A brave new world
Grip’s indie studio is growing, and diversifying.
The Swedish trailblazers are closing in on having fifteen staff, when they had just four originally, and are now working on two projects simultaneously.
“One game is horror,” states Grip. “The other is not.”
Frictional made their name with bleak, oppressive and occasionally outlandish psychological-horror. The cult Penumbra trilogy was followed by breakout hit Amnesia, and SOMA itself – despite being a very distinct proposition – still had much to offer in the fear stakes.
But it’s clear that this is not a group of developers who want to rely on that specific reputation.
“We want to spread out on what Frictional does,” explains Grip. “We don’t just want to be ‘the horror guys’.”
To this end, one team is currently putting together a fresh experience in the genre with which Frictional are most associated. But Grip, meanwhile, is overseeing a separate team on something entirely removed, and potentially experimental.
So just what is he aiming to create?
Pushing the envelope
Grip has long had a fascination with unsettling philosophical ideas and their disturbing implications. It was, after all, his passion for the discussion around consciousness that ultimately spawned SOMA.
“With SOMA, I took something I was very interested in, and tried to make it interesting to other people. I would like to do that again.”
Though he won’t yet be drawn on the overall themes of his new project (which aren’t, to be fair, finalised as yet), he wryly jokes about taking “depressing facts about the world and making them into an experience”.
“It would be interesting to see how far we could push that. Hopefully players will be even more existentially traumatised by the next game!”
On a basic gameplay level, fans of Frictional’s previous work will be interested to learn that the starting point for Grip’s new game lies in his reflections on the studio’s past releases – and player reactions to them.
Specifically, he notes that the lack of an inventory, resources to manage and multi-stage puzzles spread around different areas, made SOMA seem more simple to play than Amnesia.
“Many people referred to SOMA as a ‘walking simulator’,” he says. “I never felt it was that.
“But SOMA lacked some of the planning that Amnesia had. In Amnesia, you had to plan with your resources, and a lot of the puzzles split into sub-puzzles. SOMA was more straightforward.”
The key challenge, it seems, is to construct a new experience that employs the strategy and complexity that Amnesia bestowed on players, but without resorting to mechanics that feel cliched or obvious.
“I don’t want to have a game that’s as ‘gamey’ as Amnesia. Could you get rid of that, but still have the planning part?”
Another aspect Grip is keen to explore is related to plot. And more specifically, the way in which it is told.
“The story of a game should be someone playing the game,” he explains. “I’m very interested in that.
“I would like to see the player viewing the game more like a dialogue, than a narrative being told to them. That’s what we’re aiming at.”
The objective is to create an experience that leaves the player mulling over ideas and implications after their first playthrough – which they can then explore and shed light on the next time they dive back in.
“You could go back to the game in search of finding answers to more questions,” says Grip.
This definitely makes sense when you consider the designer’s favourite games of 2016 so far.
Grip liked Firewatch, but he’s totally head over heels in love with Inside.
He is even, at the time of the interview, finishing off an epic essay – now up on the Frictional Blog – on the virtues of that title.
“There were a lot of interesting ideas that I really liked. But the key thing is that it’s really good at storytelling, but it’s telling all of its story through play. I don’t think it’s going to win any narrative awards, but it should.”
Grip’s point is that people focus on dialogue and writing when it comes to narrative, but telling a story through gameplay can be just as powerful, if not more so.
“It’s not a big revelation to me, but [Inside’s developers] do it so well that it’s very inspirational.”
Time is not of the essence
Both new games have been in the early stages of development for almost a year now.
But Grip is at pains to point out that Frictional are in no mad hurry.
“One thing we don’t want to do is rush out a game. We want to make sure everything is set up, and processed in a good fashion.
“This Fall, we’re to bring a lot of stuff together and see where we’re at.”
A fresh take on horror
So what of the other project – the horror game that Grip himself is not directing?
If you were thinking it might just be a retread of past glories, you’re likely to be in for a surprise here as well.
“We know we have an audience. We have a backing. And people will be interested. But we really want to bring something new.
“We want to be at the forefront of horror. We want to drive innovative things and have elements that people haven’t seen in a horror game.”
If there’s one thing you take away from a conversation with Grip, it’s this thirst for the new. And whether Frictional are working in horror or otherwise, you get the sense their games will always be striving to be different.
“Trying new things is what makes us a company that makes money,” he reflects.
“We want to be the ones coming up with games other people imitate.”
Main image: SOMA